Alinea; according to Gourmet magazine, 2006's best restaurant in America. After a short elevated train trip. We walked down quaint North Halsted street. You have to know that there's a restaurant at 723 because it looks a bit like a bunker from outside, and there are no signs inviting the diners in. Inside, you are treated with a 'trompe l'oeil' corridor (seems like it is long on the picture? Well, it is short but the walls and ceiling are converging towards the end)
We are quickly shown to our table and the hostess notices our Chicago travel book and tells us she is planning a trip to Toronto. We chat a bit.
Someone brings two glasses with a lime at the bottom. We are unsure about what to think of it but we would later understand that it is part of Alinea's elaborate food "ballet".
There are no "table d'hote" menu at Alinea; it is either the Tasting ($135) or Tour ($195) menu. Provided it it 8:30pm, we certainly do not want to still be eating at 1 in the morning so, we both go with the tasting menu and wine pairing.
Here it is:
Croquette; Roasted panko bread crumbs, filled with 'creme fraiche', endives, smoked steelhead fish roe and cucumbers. An explosion of cream, saltiness of the roe and a nice finishing crunch of the cucumber. A good start. Inventive, yet tasty.
Grilled octopus; shitake mushrooms, papaya, eggplant, red wine vinegar, wasabi shoots, broth of soy milk infused with mint. You have to hold the bowl in your hand because it will roll if placed on the table. My spider sense is tingling; this bowl idea is a bit ostentatious. Food is still excellent so, we're happy.
Pureed of chanterelle mushroom, shaved, crispy prosciutto, dijon spinach, egg yoke, Madagascar curry powder and foamed carrots. Very good; delivers bold and satisfying tastes.
Shell of horse radish, apple juice and celery juice. Ok, Alinea's trying to pull an El-Bulli here. That horse radish shell just melts in your mouth and releases the apple and celery juice. Interesting concept in principle. In practice, I did not find it especially good. Not bad... just not anything special. A non-event for me.
Sturgeon tail, monk fish mousse, onion and lime.
Duck many ways. It sits on a pillow that is lavender infused (and release its scent while we eat). Crispy duck skin. Red wine broth, baby turnips, mango and yogurt. Excellent dish as far as I'm concerned.
"Short Rib"; Guiness beer sheet (tent), braised mustard seeds, peanut puree, broccoli puree, micro cilantro, peppercorns. Braised Kobé beef. It is very tender and just flaked under the fork. However, it was expected since it is Kobe beef. I am not sure what was the point of braising the beef, thereby loosing some of its taste. The layout of this dish is incredible; it looks like a painting.
Bacon on a wire, thyme, apple and butterscotch. That was the first 'dessert'. Sorry, no can do; sweet bacon does not work for me at all.
Brie cheese semi-fredo with key-lime juice from the limes glasses that have been put on our table at the beginning of the meal (naaah, not my favorite. Just give me a cheese platter, I'll be fine)
Strawberry, wasabi Youzon
All in all, I thought that Alinea was a good experience; food was at times surprising, at times just an excuse to "show off" a culinary trick. I thought that the waiting staff was not up to par compared to similar level ones elsewhere (service at The Baccara in Gatineau or the now defunct Lucas Carton is much superior). I found the overall feeling a bit cold and distant, as if the meal was somewhat just a small part of dining at Alinea; the remainder being that you are extra cool for knowing about Alinea, you can show to your buddies that you are willing to spend $250 per person for so little food and that it's not enough for food to be good, it has to be food version of contemporary art (you attend the showing so you can say you did).
I'll contrast this with Charlie Trotter's in my next entry...
Total damage: $135 per person + wine pairing
723 North Halsted,